COVER STORY: Preventing Gut Stasis in Hand-fed Palm Cockatoos


I t was November 2008. The two-week old Palm cockatoo chick was crying loudly, begging to be fed. His crop was nearly full of formula, the same as it had been the night

before. His gut function had begun to slow a few days ago and in that short time he had changed from a rapidly growing, plump, pink, contented baby to a thin, anxious, pale little creature who could no longer digest anything I fed him. My heart sank. I knew I would lose this baby as I had lost several others if I couldn't stimulate his sluggish digestive tract before it stalled completely.

Most psittacine breeders eventually deal with the occasional "slow crop". Causes range from incorrect brooder temperature to bacterial and fungal infections, but it is rarely fatal if recognized and treated promptly. In 30 years of breeding white cockatoos I had never seen anything like this. It seemed as though every Palm baby developed some degree of gut stasis or constriction after a few days of hand-feeding.

The Palm breeders I talked to were an innovative lot and most agreed that what worked for one chick didn't necessarily work for another. I learned that most used a variation of the diet recommended by the Avicultural Breeding and Research Center (ABRC) which consists of a commercial formula supplemented with broccoli, apples and macadamia nut paste. Some suggested alternating feedings of thicker formula with water or Pedialyte. Other babies did better on tiny amounts of thin formula fed every two or three hours around the clock for the first week or two. Food movement through the gut of Palm neonates is typically much slower than that of white cockatoos. Weight gain is often painfully slow and fungal and bacterial infections are common. With much luck and attention, the baby survives and eventually thrives once it begins eating on its own.

Unfortunately, many chicks never make it that far. Their digestive systems continue to slow regardless of what they are fed. Even plain water stops moving through them, and enzymes and probiotics are of little help. Once the gut shuts down and weight gains stop, they quickly weaken and die. Grams stains and cultures are usually normal unless the chick lives long enough to acquire infections as a result of slow digestion. N ecropsy results are inconclusive. No doubt many breeders and their veterinarians have lain awake nights puzzling over the mystery ingredient that would solve the problem of gut stasis in Palm chicks.

How It All Started

My adventure with Palm cockatoos began in 2004 when two physicians, Scott Karlene and Kevin Gaffney, asked whether I would be interested in breeding a group of Palms belonging to their non-profit foundation, Lahser Interspecies Research Foundation. LIRF is dedicated to endangered species preservation, disease research and prevention, and nutritional and dietary investigation. The doctors were intrigued by the difficulties inherent in Palm husbandry and decided to take up the challenge. I was thrilled at the opportunity to work with a species I had only dreamed of. I knew Palms were considered one of the most difficult psittacines to breed, but I had many years experience with white cockatoos including three generations of Galerita galerita. How hard could they be?

During the first two years working with the LIRF Palms, I found them to be active, hardy birds, able to spend much of the year outdoors in our harsh midwestern climate. As I observed their behavior and compared my thoughts with Dr. Karlene's, I grew to love these beautiful, independent and somewhat solitary birds that were so different from my gregarious white cockatoos. I also began to understand how they got the reputation for being difficult.

Palms are perfectly content living one to a flight. If two birds don't show a strong and obvious attraction for each other, there's no point trying to change their minds. Unlike a white cockatoo that might initiate a romance with the bird next door because it doesn't want to be alone, a Palm has no need for closeness with a bird that is not its mate. We have a lovely mature hen who so far has turned her back on every male who displays and calls to her. I have no idea whether she doesn't want a mate or if I haven't found one who meets her standards, but I keep trying.

Mated pairs obviously enjoy each other's company and often display and call to each other, but they do little allopreening or cuddling and often sleep at opposite ends of their flights. I quickly discovered that few things make an adult Palm more grumpy than having to share a sleeping perch with another bird.

It took two years to get six birds paired up and busy filling their open-topped boxes with finely shredded branches. I thought the hard part was over. I had no idea how difficult the next stage of this project would be.